A couple of years ago, I saw an ironic posting juxtaposing college entrance requirements today with those thirty years prior. It got me thinking because last year was my 30th class reunion. What did I have to do to get into college? So, I reached back among the cobwebs of my brain to dig out some high school memories. What I realized is that I am so glad I do not have to worry about getting into college today. The pressure is so intense now.
As a mother of a 6th grader, I am already hearing the buzz about the best high schools and what to do to get accepted into college. The obsession with getting our kids into college is really over the top. I have been privy to some conversations that I could only describe as funny—like a skit from Saturday Night Live—if the parents weren’t so darn dead serious. Here’s an example:
Mom 1: So, what high school do you think your child will go to?
Mom 2: I guess the one we are zone to, why?
Mom 1: Haven’t you looked into the local charter schools, private schools, and magnet programs? Don’t you want your child to go to college?
Mom 2: Um, yeah, sure. I hope she does.
Mom 1: Hope? Oh, I have already hired a college consultant for Janie.
Mom 2: Isn’t she in 4th grade?
Mom 1: Yes, but you can never start too early. We have a definitive timeline of things Janie has to complete so that she can get into the best high school possible.
Mom 2: Like what?
Mom 1: Well, she has to have a list of awards. We are currently working on the Geography Bee. I want her to get to State finals this year. And, of course, she will need to complete at least 300 community service hour, but 400 should seal the deal. We have a tutor that comes 3 times a week to help prep her for the standardized test this year, and let’s see. Oh, yes, athletics. She is on a nationally ranked gymnastics team that practices 15 hours a week. You know, they want well-rounded applicants.
Mom 2: Did you say applicants? Wow, that’s a lot. Annie sings in the church choir and takes art classes periodically.
Mom 1: That’s it? Oh, we are going to have to sit down some time so I can teach you the way of the world. If Annie doesn’t go to the right school, how will she ever get into a good college? And, if she doesn’t get into a good college, then what kind of future will she have?
Mom 2: (Silence).
Mom 1: My niece applied to the top state college and was waitlisted, and she had an impressive resume.
Mom 2: Resume? Aren’t those for getting professional jobs after college?
Mom 1: Get with it. (snap, snap). Open your eyes. My niece was in the top 10 percent in her graduating class with a 5.3 G.P.A.. She got a prestigious internship at the biomedical research center where she worked on identifying a specific gene of leukemia patients. She won her Gold Award for Girl Scouts as a sophomore. She was president of the Chess Club, and she led a missionary aide trip to Guatemala last summer. She did all this while playing tournament volleyball, and working at Chick-Fill-A on the weekends. And, SHE was waitlisted.
Mom 2: Are you serious?
Mom 1: This is serious business.
Although this is somewhat of an exaggeration, there is a lot of truth behind the little scene above. Mom number one is what today we would call a helicopter parent, one who hovers over their kids and swoops in to save them before they even go astray. The other mom is just clueless. I often think that based on my high school “resume,” today I probably would not get into the college I attended. Even though I got decent grades, average standardized test scores, and was in a load of after school activities, my application would look like a series of doodles compared to the “stuff” kids have to do today to impress a college entrance board.
Back in 1984 when I graduated high school, to get into a state university you basically needed to score a 1000 on the SAT, have at least a B average, and a sprinkle of after school activities. Today, the stakes are higher, much higher. The Texas A & M application for 2014 has sections dedicated to awards, community service, leadership, athletics, AP and dual enrollment classes, and anything else that seems special, like building a museum (brick by brick) in your neighborhood.
In 1984, I did not spend my time in test preparation courses. I did not feel the burden to get X number of hours of service—we did service just to help people. No one logged it or signed off on it. If we were in a sport, no one hired a special coach, like a pitching coach, to give her kid an edge. We just went to practice and played hard, and quite frankly had a good time. There were not a lot of parental sideline coaches screaming at their kids.
In 1984, my biggest worry for college applications was meeting the deadline because my parents did not pay any attention to this process. They never read my college essay, they never coached me in test preparation, and they certainly did not hover while I filled out the applications. They expected me to go to college, but they were not going to do anything more than write the check for the application fee. (And, I felt blessed that I could apply to three different schools. That was three different fees.)
My memories of high school are wonderful. Not that I always had a good time or that I was always successful. In truth, I was often in the vice principal’s office, and I still can’t talk about my chemistry grades. But, I had fun. I explored things that interested me like choir, guitar, theater and journalism, just because. I could try out for various sports (not that I did) because I did not have to specialize in one by the age of 8. I also had free time to just hang out with my friends, and talk about dates and clothes, and what I wanted to be when I grew up. And, I had time to make a steady income babysitting in the neighborhood. I was certainly not out winning awards, and none of my friends were either. And, before you assume I attended some low-level school, I did not. I attended a good school in Miami, Florida, and the people I went to high school with are currently are the movers and shakers in education, government, law, medicine and business.
Even though what I accomplished in high school feels so small compared to the kids’ accomplishments today, the bottom line is that I feel that I turned out okay. It did not hamper choices, my future or my professional success.
Unfortunately, I do not think my children will be afforded the luxury of experimenting with different subjects and activities in school. Why? Because today entrance into college is more competitive. A child needs to stand out somehow to be noticed in today’s world.
I want so desperately to fight this trend, to let my children be children. At the same time, I cannot help but feel I am doing them a disservice by not enrolling them in test preparation courses and amassing stunning service opportunities for them. So, what is an anti-helicopter parent to do? It is a vexing quandary.